Living off the Grid—and Seeking Enlightenment—at Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center

In Cover Stories by Eleanor Scottleave a COMMENT

In 2005 Mitzi Wood-Von Mizener, a psychologist in her late 30s with a home and practice in the suburbs of Nashville, hiked up Log Mountain in rural Grainger County on a vision quest. For three days and three nights, Wood-Von Mizener wandered alone in the mountaintop wilderness, eating nothing and drinking little. It was summer, very humid, and very green.

“I was scared,” Wood-Von Mizener says. “I didn’t know what to expect. There was fear of being alone, and fasting is not easy for me. But I was ready for the clarity I was seeking. My biggest fear was that I’d come to the end of the three days with no transformation, no change.”

This solo fast on the mountain is part of an eight-day nature immersion experience, one of the flagship programs at Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center, a 120-acre spiritual retreat that controls conservation easements on nearly 500 acres near the small town of Washburn, Tenn. Guided by Narrow Ridge founder Bill Nickle, the solo-fast participants engage in wilderness survival training, three days and three nights of fasting and solitude, and a sweat lodge ceremony.

Deep in the backwoods of the politically conservative state of Tennessee, this eco-minded spiritual retreat, started in the 1970s with a 40-acre parcel of former farmland, may be an anomaly in some ways. Yet, Narrow Ridge is one of several alternative communities that carved out a space in the inexpensive, secluded land of rural Tennessee. There’s The Farm, a former hippy commune in Middle Tennessee; Short Mountain Sanctuary, the LGBTQ collective near Smithville, Tenn. whose members call themselves Radical Faeries; and locally, The Ridge, Rollo Sullivan’s “third-world paradise” of fainting goats and houses built with reclaimed trash in the woods of South Knoxville. Tennessee has an underground counterculture streak; though interest in Narrow Ridge has ebbed and flowed over the years, with financial woes nearly tanking the retreat in the early 2000s, a recent wave of devotees has breathed new life into the community.

In her suburban house in Hermitage, Wood-Von Mizener read and was inspired by Stephen Foster’s The Book of the Vision Quest, in which Foster describes a “mystical, practical, and intensely personal journey of self-knowledge.” She found Narrow Ridge through a Google search (Tennessee + vision quest.)

“Bill sent me a copy of handwritten directions. I came out here and I thought, Oh my gosh, I hope these are good people. Because my phone’s dead and I’m in the middle of nowhere,” Wood-Von Mizener says.

She did find “good people” in the quiet, deliberate Nickle, a Methodist minister now in his 70s, who imparts a message of environmental unity and social tolerance. At the root of Narrow Ridge is Nickle’s effort to lead people to forge a profound personal connection with the natural world, to develop a love for the earth that inspires land conservation and sustainable lifestyles. Alone in the woods, hollow with hunger, Wood-Von Mizener derived meaning from the metaphors she saw in the landscape and wildlife, experiencing an unfolding of peaceful insights, and the growing certainty that she belonged there, right there, in the lush woods on the edge of Hogskin Valley.

COVER_0519_EntranceEleanor Scott

“I fell in love with the mountains,” Wood-Von Mizener says. “Even though I grew up in Hendersonville, my family for generations had been Appalachian. Something in my DNA was connected to this type of place. There’s a nesting feeling, whether you are in the valley or in the trees on the mountain. The sheltering trees, the low mountains, it’s nurturing. I had a real sense that the squirrels, the birds, the groundhog that approached my campsite, were very aware of me. You think you are going on the mountain alone, you realize you are not alone, at all. You have the opportunity to feel both your smallness and your significance. There’s truth in both, and you can’t get that from any sacred text, it’s something you have to experience.”

Two months after her mountaintop experience, Wood-Von Mizener signed a lease in one of the land trusts managed by Narrow Ridge. Over the next few years, she would craft a plan to extract herself from the comforts and consumerism of her cookie-cutter suburban existence to pursue a life “boiled down to the essentials” in a rural landscape, bringing her husband, Jason Von Mizener, along for the ride. Eventually, she took on the role of director of Narrow Ridge, making a fraction of the income she made as a medical professional in Nashville. She now leads “vision fasts” herself with Nickle as her co-director.

“Working in a natural environment is therapeutic in deeper and broader ways than meeting with another individual within four walls,” Wood-Von Mizener says. “The notion that the healing that I would participate in was not just for humans, but for the broader community of life, was something that tugged at my soul. I was determined one way or another to figure out how I could be a part of it.”

Some, like Wood-Von Mizener, come for the spiritual programs and end up staying. Today, 15 people are full-time residents on the land trusts, a historic high. Five years ago Narrow Ridge looked a bit like a retirement community. Even now, the average age of a resident is 60+, and many are retired, living out their golden years in a peaceful setting with a handful of neighbors who share their environmental values. But a shift in both demographics and focus is afoot. In the past year, seven young couples secured lease sites with dreams to build a sustainable homestead or somehow use the land to earn an agricultural living. This influx has been aided in part by an anonymous benefactor providing interest-free loans in an effort to continue the mission of Narrow Ridge.

COVER_0519_Mitzi_and_BillEleanor Scott

Narrow Ridge Director Mitzi Wood-Van Mizener and founder Bill Nickle sit beneath a painting in Strawbale Lodge depicting the “Vision Fast,” one of the spiritual retreat’s flagship programs.

The Lay of the Land

The road from Knoxville to Narrow Ridge dwindles to a twisty country lane snaking through the valleys and hillsides of Grainger County. Cell phone service is spotty and GPS is unreliable. At the entrance to Narrow Ridge stands the Mac Smith Resource Center, a rebuilt old mountain shack housing the library and meeting room, with a strawbale addition to the back. This is one of several examples of strawbale construction showcased on Narrow Ridge, a natural building method embraced by contemporary environmentalists for the renewable nature of straw and its high insulation value. The walls of strawbale houses are stacked rectangular bales of hay dressed with plaster, giving the building a hearty, earthy presence.

Nickle’s own home is a showpiece of sustainable building. The trim strawbale house sits on a south-facing slope. Sunlight warms the open kitchen and dining room. There’s a cozy living room nook with a wood burning stove, and a second story bedroom loft. It’s spare yet comfortable, finished with traditional materials: rough-hewn posts, clay tiles, and local stone. The underground water catchment system filters rainwater for washing and bathing. Fixtures are stylish and old fashioned: a porcelain sink, clawfoot bath tub, and wood-burning cook stove. Elements of modern technology—a high-end composting toilet and solar panels that produce more power than he needs—promise an efficient, low-impact home of the future.

COVER_0519_Nickle_HouseEleanor Scott

Bill Nickle’s house, an example of strawbale construction.

In 1972, Nickle bought 40 acres of cheap rural land, the kernel around which Narrow Ridge would form. Throughout the 1960s Nickle had worked in Methodist churches with young adults, including a stint as a campus minister at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Nickle was unhappy with the way institutional churches dealt with young people during and after the Vietnam War. He felt the Methodist churches in which he worked ignored the “spiritual needs” of Vietnam veterans and conscientious objectors.

“I like to use the word spiritual more than religious because some of these young men weren’t religious at all,” Nickle says. “Some of them were really religious—but there was a whole gamut of these young men. There were gays involved as well.”

From the very beginning, Nickle intended to provide a refuge for people marginalized by society, founded on the hope that close encounters with the natural world would provide meaning and purpose to their lives. The first resident of Narrow Ridge was a single draft dodger in the 1970s.

“He had tried to get his conscientious objector status,” Nickle says. “The draft board wouldn’t even let me speak for him. Because they had a quota, it didn’t matter if you were a conscientious objector or not. He ran, and I provided a place for him.”

Today, Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, a Druid priestess, agnostics, and people who practice a loose animism reside at Narrow Ridge. For Nickle, a spirit of tolerance and diversity is derived through the lessons of nature.

“The natural world is very diverse; if it’s a mono-crop, we are in trouble,” Nickle says. “We have to be able to appreciate each other and accept each other’s differences. That’s what really builds community that’s viable, that’s exciting, that has a lot of life in it.”

Nickle named Narrow Ridge after a concept of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.

“I have occasionally described my standpoint to my friends as the narrow ridge,” writes Buber in a letter to his biographer Maurice Friedman in Encounter on the Narrow Ridge: A Life of Martin Buber. “I wanted by this to express that I did not rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure statements about the absolute, but on a narrow rocky ridge between the gulfs where there is no sureness of expressible knowledge but the certainty of meeting what remains undisclosed.”

Narrow Ridge is a metaphor for a philosophical concept and also the literal lay of the land, located along the edges of Hogskin Valley. The land is furrowed, with hilly fields, patches of woods, slopes and valleys. Log Mountain rises above all. For Nickle, the Earth is not merely a pile of resources to be conserved and meted out judiciously, but a living connection with the divine.

“We are one with the natural world; once we understand that oneness with all of creation, we can be healed,” Nickle says. “As long as we feel separated from the natural world, healing is difficult. We are not unique, as a species. The Earth wasn’t created and then humans were placed on it, humans came out of earth, and when we understand that, our own illnesses are seen in another light.”

In the 1990s, Nickle collected a small group of benefactors inspired by the mission of environmental stewardship who donated land and resources, greatly expanding the reach of Narrow Ridge. One important benefactor, a Smokey Mountains park ranger named Mike Wilbur, found himself a millionaire through the most painful circumstances—a lawsuit against the gas company after a gas-related accident killed his entire family. Wilbur used that money to buy land for Narrow Ridge. Mac Smith, for whom the resource center is named, was another important supporter.

Today, Narrow Ridge controls 120 acres of community land and four land trusts: Black Fox, Hogskin Valley, Little Ridge, and the newly acquired Nicely Farm. The land trusts expanded the function of Narrow Ridge from a weekend spiritual retreat to an opportunity for people to lease and preserve rural land from degradation and development, or build their own sustainable homestead.

Strawbale Lodge is the largest strawbale building at Narrow Ridge overlooking Hogskin Valley.Eleanor Scott

Strawbale Lodge is the largest strawbale building at Narrow Ridge overlooking Hogskin Valley.

In the past, lease-holders were mostly upper-middle class environmentalists leasing land to support Narrow Ridge’s mission of conservation. Lease-holders make a one-time upfront payment to hold a site for 99 years, and can sell the lease for no more than 3 percent per annum above the base rate to prevent speculators trying to make a quick buck on cheap land. And the land is mouth-wateringly cheap. Lease sites range from a 2.5-acre site in Black Fox for $10,000, to a 8.5-acre lot in the Nicely Farm for $30,000. The land is remote, though, and without the conveniences of electric lines, water hook-ups, or septic systems, few people have ever lived at Narrow Ridge full-time.

Over the years, Nickle has himself left Narrow Ridge, sometimes for years at a time, to take jobs in Methodist churches or work on environmental programs. Without Nickle’s leadership, energy and income stagnates.

“I felt Narrow Ridge should not be equated with one person,” Nickle says. “I thought I should step aside and let the organization stand on its own.”

Whether he likes it or not, the success of Narrow Ridge has been tied to Nickle in the past. Since Nickle’s return in 2003 he has led the push to create environmental programs, sustainable building workshops, and gardening and yoga classes generating income for the center. Narrow Ridge rents out several cabins, including the Strawbale Lodge, for those seeking a rural weekend getaway. Community events like Hogskin History Day, music jams, and Solstice and Equinox celebrations have boosted interest and increased donations, allowing Narrow Ridge to acquire more land and add features like the Natural Burial Preserve [see sidebar: “Green Burial at Narrow Ridge Natural Burial Preserve.”]

Nickle has himself chosen his future resting spot in the preserve, under a persimmon tree. He does not plan to have a headstone of any sort. Narrow Ridge will be his legacy. His hope is that with the young people living and working on the land trusts, and with energetic leaders like Wood-Von Mizener, the mission of Narrow Ridge will forge ahead in his absence.

“The hope for the future is that we will be more sustainable,” Nickle says. “With climate change—I think there are still some doubts, people are not really aware of the desperate situation right around the corner. We hope by reaching out to people, building community, continuing to grow and strengthen our sense of spirituality here, [we can] teach sustainability so people can move in those directions in a more aggressive way. Whether I am here [to witness it] or not, the foundation is strong. I’ll bet on it.”

Martha Pierce in her unfinished bedroom, with canvas draped over the walls of exposed straw.Eleanor Scott

Martha Pierce in her unfinished bedroom, with canvas draped over the walls of exposed straw.

Off the Grid

Martha Pierce, 62, moved to Narrow Ridge in April 2015 and began building her own 750-square-foot strawbale house on her 5-acre lease site. A row of solar panels face the valley. She moved into her house with the interior still unfinished, and lives there with her dog, Sassy, and three cats. The two-story house has a perfectly square footprint and a simple shed roof supported by stick frame construction. The exterior strawbale walls are very thick, providing deep window seats and sills.

Pierce has learned carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work while building this house with the help of friends and volunteers.

“I think it’s valuable for the students [who visit] to meet Martha, drill in her hand,” Wood-Von Mizener says. “Sustainability is what we are trying to promote, but also challenging the notion there is one prescribed way to live. You come here and see living examples of options. You have this one precious life and you have options of what you do with it. We hope to expose seekers to new ways of being.”

Narrow Ridge’s building guidelines encourage houses that use less polluting energy sources. Land-use restrictions include bans on clear-cutting trees, toxic chemicals like pesticides or fertilizers, and dusk-to-dawn security lights. House plans must be approved by a hydrologist to prevent erosion and cannot exceed 2,500 square feet. Off-grid houses are encouraged.

An antique piano, passed down through the women of Martha Pierce's family for generations, sits in the living room.Eleanor Scott

An antique piano, passed down through the women of Martha Pierce’s family for generations, sits in the living room.

Pierce’s house, heated with one wood stove, is almost suffocatingly warm on a sunny winter day. The interior glows with golden light from the yellow pine floor and unfinished beams and studs. An antique piano sits against a wall. The upstairs walls are undressed, and Pierce has hung canvas over the exposed straw. Large multi-paned windows set in the corners of the room reveal a sight surreal in its dreamworld beauty—a narrow valley, and beyond, Log Mountain, the site of vision quests. The mountain fills the windows making it seem close enough to touch—and at the same time, defines the vastness of space between it and the little house on the hill.

In Pierce’s former life she was director of a Methodist camp in Florida, an experience that gives her perspective on human/nature interaction and leaves her well-positioned to lead programs and events as operations manager at Narrow Ridge.

Eight years ago, Pierce came to Narrow Ridge as part of the Caring for Creation Conference, and signed up for a 24-hour natural immersion experience.

“Twenty-four hours was enough to let me know I wanted to be here. I just didn’t know how,” says Pierce, who appreciated the rural Tennessee landscape and the community of like-minded environmentalists.

“At Narrow Ridge what impacted me more than anything else was that the people here lived what they believed, and they believed enough to change the way they lived,” says Pierce. “I had always been environmental but I had never known other people crazy enough to do that. And it just resonated with me that I wasn’t alone. I was a part of a group who would be willing to change.”

Bob, Beth, and Natalie Graves in the yard in front of their home, which they built from scavenged or blemished materials. Eleanor Scott

Bob, Beth, and Natalie Graves in the yard in front of their home, which they built from scavenged or blemished materials.

Youthful Pioneers

Beth and Bob Graves, both 29, live with their 6-year-old daughter, Natalie, on their homestead at the edge of the woods. The yard is strewn with building materials, and they’ve chopped paths through a thicket of blackberry briers. The Graves are roughing it more than anyone else on Narrow Ridge, scratching out a living. They have lived in a tiny unfinished structure on their 6-acre lease site for over a year without running water, indoor plumbing, Internet, or reliable electricity. This humble living situation is both a realization of environmentalist ideals and the result of material poverty.

Neither Beth nor Bob had much money growing up. Beth’s family moved around a lot, living in a succession of apartments in Philadelphia, Penn. and Knoxville. They were always poor, but Beth grew up in a household of lively dinner table discussions about philosophy and politics. Her parents taught their children the importance of environmental responsibility, social justice, and good food.

In the summer of 2002, when Beth was a teenager, her parents, Frank Callo and Susan Bradford, took an internship at an organic farm on Narrow Ridge.

“We wanted to do something different and fun, have a little adventure with the kids,” Callo says, “When we got here, we really fell in love with it. We loved the wholesomeness of our kids running around while we’re harvesting things, getting to be outside, play in the grass, look at birds. I would come out in the morning and the valley would be filled with morning mist. The sun would hit this mist and it would just glow. You could see the ridge floating, appearing to float, on this sea of sunlit morning mist. You could stand in the middle of a field at 2 in the afternoon, and it would be so quiet that your ears would sing, the way they do in a quiet room at night. Having lived in the city all my life, to have that kind of quiet, I can’t even begin. Gooey words like ‘spiritual’ come to mind. We felt that we have to at least try to stay here. How are we going to make a life out here beyond this internship?”

The Bradford-Callos rented a cabin and became the Narrow Ridge facilities managers. They mowed, maintained batteries and composting toilets, prepped cabins. For a time, they were the only people living full-time at Narrow Ridge, and after three years Narrow Ridge ran out of money to pay them.

“There wasn’t a real viable way to make a living out there, for us,” Callo says, “We couldn’t find our way in. We didn’t have any way to purchase one of those land trust sites. So we couldn’t establish any kind of a homestead out there. It was demoralizing.”

Rachel Milford and Matt Ellison are part of a new wave of young couples buying leases on the land trusts at Narrow Ridge.Eleanor Scott

Rachel Milford and Matt Ellison are part of a new wave of young couples buying leases on the land trusts at Narrow Ridge.

Rachel Milford and her husband Matt Ellison, both in their 30s, are on the cusp of signing a lease on an 8.3-acre parcel of south-sloping hillside with a view of Norris Lake. Milford makes a living through her herbal medicine company, Reclaiming Your Roots, and performing with her puppet troop, Cattywampus Puppet Council. Ellison is a bio-systems engineer who works for Aries Energy, a solar panel company.

“I flip-flopped a little bit,” says Milford, “I am very active in the Knoxville community and I want to continue to be. But I also want a calm, beautiful home in a rural setting. There’s been a lot of back and forth.”

Milford and Ellison knew several of the young leaseholders. Kellie and Aaron Burns, owners of the organic honey company The Burns and the Bees, use their lease-site to house their beehives. Two other young couples are building a yurt on a shared lease site. Milford would like to use her land to grow herbs for her business.

“One of [Narrow Ridges’] biggest issues is they want all these young people to come in, but young people don’t have a lot of money,” Milford says. “We have jobs, we are not retired, and [we’re] not ready to stay out there. We have to continue to make money. Are we going to make money off the land? Hopefully, but probably we are still going to have to do distance work.”

Milford’s desire for unpolluted land and her interest in herbal medicine is fueled by her own health problems, which she says are partly attributed to “multiple chemical sensitivity. ” She avoids exposure to pesticides and herbicides and found it appealing that these are banned at Narrow Ridge.

For Milford, the land and the shared environmental values are the draw, the spiritual aspect is secondary. Perhaps a generational issue: Milford seems to casually accept the same concepts of social diversity and environmental conservation that made Nickle an outlier in the 1970s. But also, the younger generation seems more focused on how they can make a living from the land.

“Spiritual ecology is interesting to me,” Milford says, “Matt grew up Southern Baptist, I grew up Jewish, neither one of us attends a house of worship. Both of us feel we are most strongly connected to our spiritually in nature. I believe everything has life-force and energy. If God is anything, God is the world we exist in. Some of that stuff can get pretty hippy dippy and that’s not where we are coming from. We are not running around in tunics trying to connect with the spirit of the soil.”

Also not “hippy-dippy” is Beth’s husband Bob, a reserved country boy who grew up in a working-class family just down the road from Narrow Ridge. He remembers having the impression that a bunch of “college kids” hung out there some weekends, and he remembers his dad warned him to stay away from those people. Bob’s father builds prefab houses for Clayton Homes, and Bob grew up helping him with construction projects. A far cry from the conscientious objectors that were Narrow Ridge’s original residents, Bob is a sergeant in the Army Reserves. He’s held a series of blue-collar jobs, and after a period of unemployment, recently found a job with a landscaper.

Bob identifies as Christian, but doesn’t go to church, and doesn’t vote. Beth did vote, terrified at the thought of a Trump presidency. Beth’s liberal ideals and Bob’s apolitical conservative views intersect at the homestead they are building together.

“Here, we are on the same page,” says Beth.

Their house is the size of a large tool shed and the entire thing cost $4,000. Natalie’s room is the loft, a sunny space full of toys and dress-up clothes. A bookcase separates the tiny living room from the parents’ tiny bedroom. Their toilet is a 5-gallon bucket in an old plastic Port-a-potty shell behind the house. They didn’t have any electricity, until, with their tax return, they bought one solar panel and one battery, enough for three hours of power a day. They use that power to light a lamp to cook and eat dinner, and maybe watch one DVD on their flat screen TV before the power dies.

Unlike the natural construction of many of the buildings on Narrow Ridge, the Graves’ house is cobbled together with materials chosen for their cheapness and availability: blemished sheetrock, OSB particle board, and cull lumber from the sawmill. The vinyl siding on their house cost $25 for the entire lot.

“Ultimately we’d like to have a house that’s more green, as far as the components that built it. But it’s a consolation knowing that our [carbon] footprint right now is very small,” says Beth.

Beth Graves makes dinner in her makeshift kitchen.Eleanor Scott

Beth Graves makes dinner in her makeshift kitchen.

Beth stirs a pot of chili bubbling on the propane stove in her makeshift kitchen. She hands Natalie a piece of green pepper from the cutting board. The kitchen is the largest, most developed area of the house. She hand-washes dishes in tubs, stores food in coolers, They haul their water from a local spring. The water situation is hardest for Beth, as a housewife who cleans things all day. They are saving up to finish their rainwater catchment system, but the Graves’ biggest challenges are money and time.

“Time management in this situation is a lot different from when your home doesn’t require so much of you,” say Beth, “You have to get wood to burn, you have made sure you change the bucket every two days.”

Beth is homeschooling Natalie, a talkative first-grader. Natalie loves riding her Big Wheel down the dirt hill, and GoldieBlox, a toy, she explains, that “teaches girls engineering concepts.” She misses the Internet, she says, and cartoons.

Beth is expecting their second child in May.

“I am isolated up here,” Beth says. “But as a young mom, I don’t feel any more isolated than I did living in the middle of town. I don’t have too many people, but that’s always how it’s been.”

For Bob, a man who’s suffered unexpected job loss, unemployment, and a home foreclosure, he is happy to have a home that is paid for, no matter how humble it is.

“Waking up in the morning, and you don’t have to worry about paying rent, or utility bills. The amount of bills we have is not much, compared to average. The peace and quiet and the lack of stress about worrying about bills, that’s my thing about it,” he says.

Bob points out their house is traditional in many ways, “It’s a simple little house that you’d draw, a rectangle with a triangle on top.”

The little isolated vinyl house without running water is in many ways an authentic echo of the cabins of Appalachian pioneers. Though difficult, Beth is living the homesteading dream her parents were not able to realize.

“I’m super proud of her,” Callo says. “It’s hard. Being able to bear the isolation and the hard work and the no electricity and sometimes it’s too hot and sometimes it’s too cold. Everything you have to do is backbreaking and not having a big community of kids for her daughter. She really, in my opinion, is a badass.”

“The thing that occurs to me every morning is how lucky we are to be out here,” Beth says, “Even though we are not there yet as far as having an up-and-running homestead, we are working toward it. The goal is to establish a home for our kids. A working homestead so there will be a house here, there will be animals, they’ll have everything they need. I don’t plan on ever leaving.”

“When people come here, they sometimes glorify those of us who have chosen this as if we’ve somehow make some great sacrifice,” Wood-Von Mizener says. “There are challenges, but ‘sacrifices,’ I don’t think that’s a word that sums up my experience here. I think I’ve claimed much more in rewards that I’ve ever made in sacrifices.”

Eleanor Scott's Possum City explores our urban forests, gardens, and wild places, celebrating the small lives thriving there. A freelance writer and columnist, she also maintains the Parkridge Butterfly Meadow in East Knoxville.

Share this Post